From Away – Printmaking by Circling the Square Fine Art Press

21 Jan 2010 in Orkney, Visual Arts & Crafts

Orkney Museum, Kirkwall, Orkney, until 30 January 2010

Circling The Square premises at Artdogs in Maine

Circling The Square premises at Artdogs in Maine

THIS EXHIBITION is the result of a serendipitous accident – an American printmaker, Jennifer Strode, with half an hour to kill at the end of her Orkney holiday, pops into the Porteous Brae Gallery in Stromness while waiting for the ferry.

There’s work in there she really likes, and before she knows it she’s introduced to the maker, Carol Dunbar, who works just down the road at The Pier. Result – a sparky conversation and a pledge to have an exchange print show.

Orkney’s Soulisquoy Printers exhibited in the University of Maine in October 2009. Now Circling the Square, from Gardiner, Maine, have returned the compliment, providing a varied and technically diverse show.

Information is minimal and I’d have liked to know a bit more about Circling the Square – it’s the other side of the pond, after all, and it’d be nice to know what brought these folk together, how they make a living, what their countryside is like, put the faces to the work… but the prints should speak for themselves, I suppose.

They are two very different set ups, that’s made clear. Soulisquoy is Council funded, though they own and subsidise their equipment. They’ve had an open access printmaking facility for 25 years, with a vacuum silkscreen table, a smaller etching press, a 19th century Columbia letterpress: but they’ve no exhibition space, so always have to find somewhere else to show their stuff, with all the attendant hassle that entails. There’s always the worry about the grant; always the unspoken determination to remain open access no matter what.

Circling the Square are privately run. They’ve got a reference library, an exhibition space, a Griffin etching press which prints full sheet relief and intaglio work; they’ve got non-toxic methods of plate creation plus facilities for silkscreen and mixed media. Though better equipped than their Orkney friends, the Soulisquoy model is something they want to emulate – they’re a relatively new group.

Orkney, according to Jennifer, is “like Maine without the trees.” The similarities are interesting – there are coastlines, and distances to travel in order to meet up; both economies are in transition, from fishing and farming communities to tourism and new technologies. I’m wondering already what distillation of their landscape, inner and outer, we’ll encounter, and whether it’ll echo anything Orcadian, or just define differences.

It’s clear at once that the exhibitors fall into two groups – those who are concerned with internals, and those who are celebrating the outside world. Beyond that, there’s a fascination with technique, which all share. Surely the next stage of the collaboration should be a wholesale crossover! Send Soulisquoy to work in Maine, and Maine to work in Soulisquoy, and see what happens… but that’s for later.

I like Karen Adrienne’s series of meditations, on, I think, fertility. Well, there’s a naked 18th or 19th century lady with a chicken on her head and lots more round her feet. She’s carrying a scrap bucket, and she’s surrounded by fibrous patterns like unravelling balls of wool. There’s ‘A Choice’ with the hint of a little yellow egg at the top, and then @The Decision’ – a bigger egg – and then the next two prints have big bright eggs. Maybe I’m wrong and that isn’t the story at all, but I like the sequence.

Diana McFarland (interesting, by the way, how many Scottish surnames there are here) also plays with the figure; she’s got a very chubby little Atlas, disporting himself amongst a series of slightly screwy cosmologies. The colours, pastel with the odd vivid orange, are clear and witty, like the work itself.

Phinnean Gaudette, on the other hand, chooses to picture herself, dressed up and dressed down, with writing about her choice of clothes overlaid on the image. Oddly, it tells us less about the maker than the subtler statements of the previous two. I feel the same about Ian Blethen’s ‘Secrets’. These are bits of white card – one a bit striped with grey – on bits of whiter paper. Having just emerged from a lot of white stuff which yielded no secrets at all, just chilblains, I don’t spend long on these.

Jennifer Strode likes portentous titles – ‘States of Being’, ‘Between Past and Future’ – but I like her simplest work, ‘Glimpse’ – a bit of a tree, dark in a green forest. Like Gaudette, she uses text, but it’s hidden in the background. There’s an atmosphere, here, a story beginning, like Freidrich’s best. This little work repays close attention – and brings us neatly to the other strand – the natural world and how these people respond to it.

J Natty Lazarian’s studies of trees show a real enjoyment of the physicality of the etching tool. I always find trees a bit threatening, and like his attention to them.

If you remember the Blue Peter fad, briefly taken up by teachers in primary and secondary schools in the 50s, of collecting silvery paper (Penguins! Tunnocks! Munchmallows!) and glueing it in pretty patterns, you’ll warm to Diana Willetts ‘Maine Gold’ and ‘Bright Fall Day’. These are what you’d expect to see, from Maine, about Fall – they’re delicate and pretty, using fragile leaf patterns and rich colours, but the unexpected, provided by Karen Good, is more compelling.

She gets the essence of the otherness of a different culture, in her stark single titled studies. ‘Church’ is just that – an etiolated, whiteout image of a clapboard church with the order of service on a post, but you can feel the heat, and the difference. Stromness Kirk it’s no. Susan Margaret Reidy works in the same way, but uses colour, and shiny stuff, to concentrate our minds on the picture – of her home, maybe, in different atmospheres.

Best of all, unexpectedly, there’s a kind of Chinese lantern effect going on in Ellen Roberts sassy, confident 3D work. ‘Turbo Tubing with Dylan’ and ‘Seaweed at Higgens Beach’ are tiger-striped, jazzy, full of shadows and sharp lines – this is a young and confident, strange and different take on the world, and crucially, simple. I did make a list of all the processes used in some of these prints – techniques I’d never heard of – but finally decided just to look. Believe me – you don’t need to be a slave to technique.

I’d love to see a joint exhibition, at some point. Crossovers and collaborations are what makes artists re-think things. For the moment though – catch this little exhibition. There are works I haven’t mentioned you may like even more than ‘Turbo Tubing with Dylan.’ But I defy you not to want to have a Roberts on your wall.

© Morag MacInnes, 2010